A Few Good Apps

mewindowsI installed Windows 10 on to my laptop a few weeks ago. I have been considering upgrading my main machine to 10 for a while, so dropping it onto the lappy seemed like a good way to take it for a test drive.

I had upgraded my ASUS Windows 8 tablet to 10 shortly after the free offer appeared. It started out great, but the lack of good apps (which I have complained about) turned it into a mini-laptop. Having a mini-laptop is cool, but I wanted to use my tablet as, well, a tablet, so the ASUS has collected dust in favor of my more app-centric iPad mini.

Back to the laptop: While waiting for app updates to download in the Store, I poked around and found the page for the Facebook app. I had used it previously and it actually wasn’t too bad until Microsoft stopped updating it.  I think somewhere down the way MS and FB had a fight, but that’s neither here nor there. As new features kept getting added to Facebook, the Windows app was stuck in time. Thinking back, its obsolescence and overall lack of apps was likely one of the things that drove me away from Windows Phone.  Old news, I know.

A sentence on the page intrigued me, though: “New for Windows 10!” Why not? I download the app and prepared to be underwhelmed. As a test, I hovered over one of the ‘Like’ links to see if the additional options would appear. Much to my surprise, they did! I did some more clicking around and was delighted to see that the app had all the features that had been missing from the previous version. It isn’t perfect, but it is much more usable than it was before.

Encouraged by that success, I decided to re-download some other apps. I was surprised to find that they too had been updated, with improved results. I then turned on ‘Tablet Mode’ (which fullscreens all programs and apps) and was astounded that I could now use my Windows 10 tablet AS A TABLET.  What a country!

All it took was a few good apps. Given my iPhone 6’s lackluster performance in buildings as of late, I might be willing to give Windows Phone another shot if Microsoft can get its apps together.

Maybe.

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It’s the Apps, Stupid!

windowsAfter months of learning to live with Windows 8 on the desktop, I picked up an ASUS VivoTab 8 tablet back in early 2015.  Finally, I would get to experience Windows 8 with a touchscreen, just like God Microsoft had intended!

As much as I like to think that I ‘got’ Windows 8 before, using it with a touch screen was wonderful.  No more fumbling with sides and screen corners!  The stupid charms on the right side of the screen finally made sense and I could bring them up by swiping in from the right side instead of madly fumbling around for for the magic spot with my mouse!  Life was great!

That euphoria lasted for about five minutes until I tried to pull up the News app and it crashed.  I checked for app updates in the Store, and there were none to be had.  So much for that.

I am totally on board with the idea that there should be desktop apps Just like the ones we have on our phones and tablets.  I shouldn’t have to go back to my web browser to do things.  Indeed, I would love nothing better than pick up my Windows 8 tablet and left-swipe from app to app to get things done instead of having to go back to Ye Olde Desktop unless I want to.

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s apps suck.  Everywhere.  They sucked on Windows Phone, sucked on Windows 8 and continue to suck on Windows 10.  Until they stop sucking, I’ll find myself going back to my desktop and my browser or using my iPhone or iPad.  Don’t like it, Microsoft?  THEN MAKE YOUR APPS STOP SUCKING!

myPhone

technology2There are a number of things that I don’t mind, but at the same time it’s sometimes fun to wave my metaphorical Cranky Old Man cane at the durn kids with their newfangled doohickeys and double-you-step music.

Case in point: Apple.  I don’t mind them.  I own a 2009 iMac and an original iPad mini.  Both are quite good at what they do, and I continue to use them.  Despite that, I like to thumb my nose at the ‘Apple guy’ in the office (there’s always one) and have back-and-forths with him about why I feel Microsoft is better.  As if in retaliation, my original iPad mini has been slowly inching towards obsolescence with each iOS update.  Recently, I was frustrated at not being able to play the neato new Fallout Shelter game for more than a few minutes without the poor thing crashing.

While the thought of getting a new iPad has crossed my mind, the thought of dropping a few hundred bucks on another one is not a pleasant one, especially since my Windows 8 tablet has proven to be quite capable, Microsoft Office notwithstanding.

Because of its creaky performance, I have been using the iPad mini as a hotspot more than anything else as of late.  I would use my cell phone as a hotspot, but Cricket Wireless has internet sharing disabled on my Lumia 530.  Jerks.  So I send a few bucks to Verizon, turn on the iPad’s hotspot feature, set it down, and then use my Windows laptop or tablet to get things done.

Which brings me to my next point.  I am, for better or for worse, married to Microsoft Windows as well as their ecosystem.  Windows 8.1, Word, OneDrive and OneNote have all served me well over the years and I have no reason to stop using them.

In spite of that, I have decided to get an iPhone for my next phone.  As I am not on a contract, I can make the jump whenever it pleases me, but more practical concerns such as home and vehicle maintenance take precedence. Nevertheless, whenever I am financially ready to make the jump I will be more than happy to for the following reasons:

  1. Apple makes pretty good hardware – My iMac and iPad have been pretty durable and dependable over the years.  I’ll likely have to get a case for an iPhone, but I’m pretty careful with my phones; I’ve never cracked a single screen over the years.
  2. Apps apps everywhere – This is the Achilles’s Heel of Windows Phone; the limited app selection wouldn’t be so bad if Microsoft would keep their own apps up to date.  The iPad version of Word blows the Windows Phone one out of the water, too.
  3. Accessories – Because I often get cheaper (or Windows) phones, cases and accessories are rare or nonexistent.  Stores seem to have three sections for phone accessories: Apple, Samsung, and one with a big sign above it for everyone else that says EFF-YOU.
  4. Microsoft is on board – The fact that I can get Microsoft Word on iOS and Android means no more Brand X Office apps.
  5. Hotspot! – I travel, and it would be nice to be able to fall back on my phone as a hotspot instead having to carry another device to do so.
  6. Android = suck, WinPhone = bleh, iPhone = ? Android devices have been craptacular for me over the years and Windows Phone trips at the finish line despite its nice interface.  I have never owned an iPhone so who’s to say I won’t like it?
  7. Get rid of iPad – I still only have my iPad mini for two reasons: to use as a hotspot and for work.  If I get an iPhone I can do without it completely.
  8. Updates for all! – With Android and Windows Phone, you are at the tender mercies of your carrier for updates unless you buy an unlocked device.  My Windows Phone is one update behind because of this.  iPhones, on the other hand, usually get all updates.

Of course, there is some bad with the good:

  1. Increased Cost – I am currently not on contract with Cricket Wireless and its been pretty sweet: $35 a month for 2.5GB of high speed data and unlimited minutes and texts.  To get an iPhone I’ll either have to pay a few hundred for the device up front or go on a contract again.  Either way that means more money.
  2. Durability – It is out of sheer luck that my Lumia doesn’t have a cracked screen given all the times I’ve dropped it (thank you Nokia).  I will definitely have to get a case to ensure my iPhone doesn’t meet an unfortunate fate.  It will remain to be seen if the iPhone is ‘Eduardo-proof’
  3. Apple EVERYWHERE? – Despite having an iMac and iPad, I am barely invested in Apple’s ecosystem.  Except for backing up my iPad I don’t use iCloud for anything.  That should stay the same with an iPhone…I hope.

I was on the fence about getting iPhone before writing this blog, but now that I’ve jotted down all the ups and downs, I’m all but certain I’m going to pull the trigger on one…eventually.  $35 a month for cell service is going to be really hard to give up, though!

A Touch of Office

windowsI purchased a Windows 8 tablet (ASUS VivoTab 8) back in January with the intention of using it as a laptop replacement.  On paper, it sounded perfect:

  • Touchscreen that Windows 8 can work well in
  • Full Windows 8 (none of this RT malarkey)
  • Improved Intel Atom CPU and better battery life compared to a laptop
  • Increased portability
  • Only $150!
  • Free Office 365 for a year

Let’s run down the list:

  • Windows 8 on a touchscreen is pretty good.  Heck, its actually great once you learn all of its little tricks.
  • A full version of Windows 8 means I can install some of my favorite (read: ancient) apps I use like WinAmp 2.9 and Microsoft Money 2000.
  • Remember Netbooks?  Those used the first Intel Atom CPUs and they were dog slow.  The newer one in the VivoTab is good for basic tasks and battery life has been in the 7-8 hour range which is what I wanted.
  • Even with a case, the VivoTab is remarkably portable.  Like my iPad mini, a 7-8″ tablet is the perfect size to carry around.
  • The price was definitely right!

And now we get to the device’s biggest problem:  Microsoft Office.  Because the VivoTab is capable of running the desktop version of Microsoft Office, that’s what you get.  That would be pretty neat, but Office is not optimized for touch on an 8″ screen.  Thus, I end up wasting time mashing its teeny icons with my sausage-fingers and fighting the interface instead of doing work.  Styluses are no help either, they make me feel like I’m trying to draw on the screen with a fuzzing crayon.  I bought a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard so I can get around Office more efficiently, but carrying them around and setting them up sucks some of that wonderful ‘portability’ out of the tablet.

Finally, Office 365 sucks horribly on this device.  It had a terrible habit of slowing down to the point where I could see letters being placed on the screen one…at…a…time every few seconds.  I would type out a full sentence and then wait for the poor thing to catch up before doing the next one because I didn’t want it to crash and potentially lose my work.  I got into the habit of saving very frequently for a few frustrating weeks before removing the craptacular Office 365 and installing my copy of Office 2010.  Needless to say, I have no intention of paying for Office 365 when the trial year runs out.

I really like my VivoTab 8, and if Microsoft could get around to making a version of Office that was suitable for smaller tablets, I would like it a whole lot more.

Oh wait, they already made one…it’s on my iPad mini!  /facepalm

Change of Screenery

technology2I have owned a iMac for five years now.  At the time, I figured that if nothing else, the improved hardware would be worth the expense.  It has been a pleasant experience for the most part…mainly because I installed Windows 7 onto it.  Thus, I don’t have to deal with OS X unless I really have to…like when I’m publishing an e-book to the iBookstore.

OS X is nice, but when I need to Get Things Done, I find myself gravitating back to Windows.  I also own a Windows laptop and thanks to The Cloud (or OneDrive to be more precise), I can easily keep my files in sync between my various devices instead of relying on the ol’ ‘sneaker-net’ like I used to back in my netbook days.

I will concede that the Mac is good at certain things, like organizing pictures and iTunes and all that good ‘not-computery’ stuff.  I also like that Time Machine keeps a full backup of my system in the event that something awful happens.  While I (fortunately) haven’t put it to the test yet, I have faith that it will work as advertised.  Sadly, my lack of being in OS X means I’ve accumulated quite a few pictures that I haven’t file away yet for safe keeping or kept very well organized, for that matter.

And so I have decided to start using my Mac, as, well, a Mac.  My 12″ laptop will serve as my ‘desktop PC’ and so I will be able to finally get all my pictures organized and keep all of my music in one place for what that’s worth.  Of course, when there’s Serious Work to be done, I’ll be booting back into Windows 7.  I’ve even gone as far to consider buying a new Windows desktop for the first time in a number of years.

Windows 8 makes that proposition a little trickier than it should be, but not for the reason you might suspect.  As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t mind Windows 8; the 8.1 update has made it much more usable with a keyboard and mouse (TIP: On the Start Screen, click the arrow pointing down to easily find all of your programs).

My issue is that I kinda want a touch screen.  The Metro/Modern user interface is made for touch and having (literally!) poked at Windows 8 on Windows tablets I’ve grown to appreciate it for what it is.  The issue is that touchscreen monitors are expensive and ‘all in one’ computers generally don’t have as much horsepower as a tower.  While I am not a big gamer, when I’m rendering a video it would be nice to not have to wait a half hour for it to finish.  There’s also something about having some  BIG IRON sitting under my desk chugging away at Important Stuff.

I’m tempted to build a new PC from scratch, but part of me says ‘I don’t have the time’ and the cost savings isn’t quite as dramatic as it used to be.  In the end, I may end up going to Ye Olde Eletronics Store to plunk down a few c-notes for a tower.  While I may lose nerd points for that, I’m pretty sure I don’t have many left after buying that iMac in the first place. 😉

I Wish I Knew How To Quit You, Laptop!

technology2I have a trip planned for this weekend (to Furry Fiesta) and as I begin to pack, I ask myself the same question that I do every trip:

Do I bring my laptop along for the ride?

I have a smartphone and a tablet and while they both do a decent enough job at keeping me connected to my precious data out in the cloud, I always find myself going back to Ye Olde Laptop.  I always need to have it with me whether I’m going to visit my folks or I’m at a convention or yes, even camping.

The most obvious advantage to the laptop over mobile devices is the screen size.  My smartphone has a 4-inch screen and I have no desire to get a huge phone (or ‘phablet’ as self-important tech writers call them).  The iPad mini is okay at 7.9 inches, but even then, a good chuck of that gets eaten away by the on-screen keyboard, and I have no desire to upgrade to a full-sized iPad or fork out a c-note for a decent keyboard accessory.  Speaking of keyboards…

The second obvious advantage of a laptop is the presence of a full-sized keyboard.  More importantly, especially to me, as a writer, the laptop keyboard actually has all of the keys.  I’ll never forget how flabbergasted I was when I was merrily typing away on my iPad mini’s Microsoft Office program and discovered that there was NO TAB KEY.  WHAT. THE. FRAK.

Speaking of ‘having everything,’ the most important benefit of having a laptop is that it has Windows.  While iOS and Windows Phone can do lots of stuff, neither one can do everything.  Even the Microsoft Office app on Windows Phone feels kind of half-assed (no tab key there, either *sob*) so if I need to do Serious Things I need to have Windows.

Finally, for all my tech knowledge and willingness to try new technologies, I tend to stick to old habits to a certain degree.  I still use a desktop, rarely watch video on mobile devices, prefer to get media on physical discs and still have a checkbook.  Based on that, it looks as if I’m stuck lugging around my old faithful 14″ Toshiba for the near future.

Or maybe not, I see there are Windows 8.1 tablets out now.  Hmm… 😉

RANDOM REVIEW: Nokia Lumia 520 / Windows Phone 8

My God, its full of squares!
My God, its full of squares!

THERE AND BACK AGAIN

It was only a matter of time before I cracked and ended my ‘dumbphone’ experiment.  But what to get next?  I had already owned two Android phones in the past, both of which became progressively crappier as they got older, so Android was a no-go.  I have no desire to own an iPhone, despite owning an iPad mini that I am happy with.  Thus, I thought I would give the ‘other’ mobile OS a try: Windows Phone.  I went to Ye Olde Electronics Store, picked up a Nokia Lumia 520 AT&T GoPhone, signed up for a $60 a month unlimited talk/text plan with 2GB of data, and hoped for the best.

This is actually my second exposure to a Microsoft mobile operating system.  My first smartphone was a T-Mobile Dash (aka HTC Excalibur) back in the dark days of Windows Mobile 6.  While it was not a bad device, Windows Mobile 6 was an odd duck and I switched from it to Android once I had the chance.  So, I’m back to where I started, as far as smartphones go.

This review is based on my having owned the phone for three weeks, with my last phone being an Acatel 871A.

HARDWARE

In terms of hardware, the Lumia 520 is basic: a 4-inch touchscreen with a resolution of 800×480, a 5MP camera on the back with no flash, and WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS.  On the top left is a standard 3.5″ headphone jack, on the bottom center is a micro-USB charge/transfer port, and volume/power/camera buttons adorn the right side of the unit.  Back, Start and Search buttons sit below the screen.  (Side note: I really wish Search buttons on phones would go away, bring back the Menu button!)  The phone uses a micro-SIM, and comes with 8GB of built-in memory that can be expanded using a microSD card.  I like having the power button on the right center, though it took just a little bit of getting used to.  The back has a rubbery finish, which I actually prefer, and I believe the screen is glass.  The phone is solid without feeling too cheap.  The only thing missing in terms of hardware is a front-facing camera and a status LED of some sort: my last phone (Motorola Photon) had a status LED which enabled me to quickly look at it and identify what the last notification was or charge status by its color.

Call quality has been good and I was able to successfully sync the phone with my vehicle via Bluetooth for hands-free operation.  The phone’s speaker is quite loud; I don’t believe I have missed any calls yet for not being able to hear the ringtone, a problem I have had with other phones in the past.

I do have a few gripes with the hardware, the screen seems to love finger oils and gets dirty very quickly, so much so that I’m considering investing in a screen protector.  While Nokia and Microsoft like to tout the Lumias’ super-sensitive screen, it is a bit too sensitive for me, but it can be adjusted.  This is my first exposure to AT&T’s LTE service, and while its speeds have not been as awesome as I have become accustomed to on my Verizon iPad mini it is fast enough to do what I need and even video has worked well.

WINDOWS PHONE

I’m sure many of you reflexively said ‘WINDOWS, EWW,” upon reading the title of this post, but I like Windows, and thank you for continuing to read.  I have used Windows for years, it lets me do whatever I want to with it, and I know how to burrow into it and get my hands dirty if need be.  Sure, Windows 8 does leave a bit to be desired, but I’ll take even that over OS X or Linux any day.  While Windows is a great big negative for many people, (especially in the mobile world) it is a plus for me.

So, Windows Phone, then.  The biggest difference between Windows Phone and its competition is the Start Screen and its use of ‘live tiles,’ instead of icons.  Live Tiles display information in real-time, such as the number of emails you have waiting or random pictures of folks in the People tile.  The system is pretty flexible in terms of letting you arrange them.  One of the first things I did was remove of most of them, particularly the AT&T apps, most of which require monthly fees.  I guess $60 a month isn’t enough.

Unlike Android and iOS, which arrange their home screens horizontally, Windows Phone does things vertically: instead of swiping right and left, you swipe up and down to navigate the Start Screen.  Swiping from right to left pulls over a full list of apps ordered alphabetically, and tapping a letter in a list brings up a screen with the alphabet so you can quickly find things.  I like the Modern/Metro user interface; one thing that I greatly appreciate is that text is actually readable.  One beef I’ve had with previous smartphones is how darn tiny text is often displayed, so having big letters I can easily read is great.

ppl
Raccoons are people too!

While there is a minor learning curve with Windows Phone, the biggest adjustment I had to make is that Windows Phone does not have a ‘phonebook’ or ‘contacts’ app.  Instead, your contacts are stored in an app named ‘People’ that can be synced to include your contacts from Facebook, Google, Hotmail or even Twitter.  The integration with other services and social media websites is very impressive:  When you pull up a person’s information in the People app you can see their latest status update and in addition to the usual ‘call’ and ‘send text’ options you can send emails, post to their Facebook walls, or even mention them on Twitter.  Windows Phone does its best to sync your contacts with social media profiles, if it doesn’t catch one, you can actually specify which profile to match up to a contact. Very nice!

Another thing that has impressed me about Windows Phone is how quickly push notifications come: I will be chatting with a friend on Facebook on another device and my phone will beep within seconds of receiving a chat reply.  It becomes mildly annoying but is a small price to pay for expediency.

One of the problems I had with Android phones is the lack of system updates: unless you buy a Google-branded phone or a super-pricey one you could expect one or maybe two updates at best, then either the manufacturer calls it a day or the carrier decides to be a jerk and not push any new updates through in the hope you’ll get a new phone.  One thing I quickly noticed about Windows Phone is that I could not specify a custom ringtone for app notifications or e-mails.  I did a little research and learned that Microsoft had pushed out an update that fixed the problem.  I checked for updates, but none were to be found.  Crap.  Time will tell if that will change, but for now custom notification sounds are a no-go (you can assign specific ringtones to people, though).  This is an annoyance, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to survive without my phone telling me “You’ve Got F-ing Mail.” 😉

APPS

And now we get to the elephant in the room: Apps.  You may have heard that the Windows Store does not have as many apps as the other guys and yes, that is very true.  I myself use very few apps (which made it easier to stop using a smartphone in the first place) but even then, there are some notable ones missing, such as Dropbox.  Dropbox is a pretty significant omission, but Microsoft is more than happy to provide built-in SkyDrive support as well as a Microsoft Office app.

I like that there is an official genuine Office app included, even if it is a bit stripped down.  Microsoft Office alternatives, in my experience, have ranged from ‘pretty good’ to ‘ick.’  So while it is a bit inconvenient to have to migrate my stuff over to SkyDrive from Dropbox, I think it will be worth it in the long run.  If you are considering making the jump to Windows Phone and you are an app junkie, it would definitely behoove you to double-check and make sure your favorites are available on Windows Phone.  The included apps do their jobs well, but the included HERE Drive + navigation app did get a little squirrelly during a recent trip.

The 520 is responsive, though I will occasionally see a “Resuming…” screen for a few seconds when switching from app to app (Quick tip: holding the ‘Back’ key brings up your currently open apps) but otherwise the phone performs well.  I should note that I do not play games on my phone so I can’t vouch for its performance there.

CONCLUSION

I have been happy with my Nokia Lumia 520 and Windows Phone thus far.  There was a bit of a learning curve involved with Windows Phone but now that I know my way around, it is a pleasure to use.  While there are a few minor annoyances, my overall experience with the 520 has been positive.  The Nokia Lumia 520 is a basic, but quality device that is priced right at $100.  That it is a no-contract phone is icing on the cake; unless you are constantly streaming music and/or video, 2GB is enough data for most people.

That said, Windows Phone is not for everybody.  If you like customizing your phone, get an Android.  If you are highly invested in Apple’s ecosystem or have an iOS device that you already love, get an iPhone.  If you are new to smartphones, actually like Microsoft and their services (Hotmail, SkyDrive, etc) I say that Windows Phone is definitely worth a try.

Nokia Lumia 520 gets 4 out of 5 Live Tiles.

The author received no compensation for this review.